I am proud to team up with the hit Broadway musical, Natasha, Pierre, and & The Great Comet of 1812, which does for War and Peace on stage what I try to do in my book, Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times, and in my keynotes: bring Tolstoy alive for a wide contemporary audience. In this blog series, I share my experience of the show and the ways it captures Tolstoy’s vital relevance for today. The Great Comet, like Tolstoy’s epic, offers not only a rousing, unforgettable story, but also an urgent moral compass and a celebration of the deep joy of living. The musical is wise and funny and profound, but it’s also jaw-droppingly fun entertainment, proving yet again the wisdom of Tolstoy’s words: “Great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone.”
This is the fourth blog in the series. If you missed the last blog, you can read it here.
Something terrible is about to happen in the home of Natasha Rostova, and Sonya, the poor, distant relative who has lived with the family since childhood, is the only one who knows about it. Natasha has been acting strange and erratic, insisting suddenly that she has fallen madly in love with the near stranger Anatole, that she plans to break off her engagement to Prince Andrey, and that Sonya had better not interfere with her plans to elope with Anatole, or else. The honor of Natasha and the entire Rostov family is at stake, Sonya well knows, and there are no good options for her. Standing alone in a dark passage outside of Natasha’s door, Sonya sings of her dilemma:
“I know you’ve forgotten me
I know you so well my friend
I know you just might throw yourself over
But I won’t let you
It’s all on me
And I remember this family
I remember their kindness
And if I never sleep again
I will stand in the dark for you
I will hold you back by force
I will stand right here outside your door
I won’t see you disgraced
I will protect your name and your heart
Because I miss my friend”
Show creator Dave Malloy has brilliantly seized on a single, seemingly minor detail from the novel—the fact that Sonya is thinking these thoughts while standing alone in the dark passage—and makes that a central image of the song. And that one image speaks volumes.
“Who will stand in the dark for me?” I found myself wondering as I listened to Sonya’s hauntingly beautiful song. “Where is that person in my life who will see me at my worst, and yet still love me without judgment and protect me even from myself when necessary?” Such people are almost never standing in the limelight, Tolstoy and The Great Comet remind us. They are the people, like Sonya, willing to stand in the shadows, silently supporting us and often sacrificing themselves for us.
Princess Mary is another quietly heroic character, whose uncommon capacity for unselfish love is rightly highlighted in the show, just as it is in the novel. This physically plain yet spiritually vibrant spinster lives a life of quiet desperation with her emotionally abusive father. Drawn to the holy wanderers who visit their estate, she dreams of dressing in peasant garb and bast shoes and, like the holy wanderers, roaming the countryside in order to get away from the misery of her current situation. In the end, though, she just can’t go through with it. She knows it would literally kill her father, who is old and ill.
Princess Mary is typically interpreted by readers and critics alike as either a chauvinistic Tolstoyan fantasy of the ideal docile woman, or as somebody who needs to get a life and begin standing up for herself. The fact is, this character, who was inspired by Tolstoy’s own late mother, does stand up for what she believes with every bit of courage as we may find in a whole host of independent-minded nineteenth-century literary heroines. It just so happens that what she believes, far from any notions of universal freedom or entitlement, is that the bonds of blood are thicker than even the sturdiest pair of bast shoes, and that sticking out a fundamentally imperfect family situation is, well, preferable to bolting.
The truth is, Princess Mary doesn’t see in her father the cruel monster others do, but an old man painfully aware that his glory has passed. She sees in him a widower at once desperate for his daughter’s affection and constitutionally incapable of receiving, let alone returning, it. And she sees a frail father who fumbles around for his spectacles lying right next to him, who makes a false step with his weakening legs while looking up quickly to make sure nobody has noticed, who suddenly drops his napkin, dozes off, and hangs his tired, gray head over his plate at the dinner table.
“He is old and feeble
And I dare to judge him,”
Princess Mary thinks in such moments. In which position, Tolstoy and The Great Comet would say, there is not weakness but wisdom.
Dave Malloy treats secondary characters like Sonya and Princess Mary with nuance and understanding. He refuses to turn them into caricatures of weak women, which frankly would have been the easier path. That approach, after all, would have been consistent with the values of our own therapy-drenched culture, in which sacrificing oneself for another person is suspiciously viewed as an unhealthy form of co-dependency. But that approach would not have been Tolstoy’s.
“One can’t help loving people,” Tolstoy wrote a few years before embarking on War and Peace: “They are all—we are all—so pitiable!” Indeed, the word “to love” (liubit’) and “to pity” (zhalet’) were used synonymously in nineteenth-century Russia. Love, then, begins where the ego ends, where I see myself in you, and you in me, and we’re both better, bigger human beings for it. That is the wisdom of Sonya and of Princess Mary, who know what it means to stand in the dark for those they love.